Turkey PM Meets with Religious Minority Leaders; Promises Reforms

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan promised democratic reforms Saturday during a rare meeting with the religious minority leaders of his country.

"It is now for us essential to embrace all 71.5 million of this nation's people in respect and love," he said after a lunch meeting with Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and leaders of the small Armenian, Jewish, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic communities.

"Are there shortcomings in implementation? There are," Erdogan added, according to CNN Turk. "We will overcome these together in this struggle. I believe this democratic initiative will change many things in this country."

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Since Turkey began EU membership negotiations in October 2005, the predominantly Muslim country has been under intense pressure to improve human rights and to expand religious freedoms and free speech as part of its membership bid.

Even though Turkey is secular and Turks are considered moderately religious, authorities often report students who attend Christian meetings to their families to prevent possible conversions, and proselytizers are detained and extradited.

Of Turkey's 70 million people, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 are Roman Catholic, and 3,500 are Protestant, mostly converts from Islam. Another 2,000 are Greek Orthodox and 23,000 are Jewish.

Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government has taken some steps toward change, amending laws to allow religious minorities to recover some property. The government has also indicated willingness to reopen the minority seminaries.

Still, doubts remain among some critics over whether the predominantly Muslim country (more than 99 percent of the population follows Islam) can protect its religious minorities.

The Christian community in Turkey, which makes up less than one percent of the population, has long been viewed with suspicion by the Muslim dominated society, particularly among increasingly vocal Islamists who see themselves - and Turkey - as locked in battle with a hostile Christian West.

Christian leaders say they are worried that nationalists will continue stoking hostilities against non-Turks and non-Muslims by exploiting growing uncertainty over Turkey's place in the world.

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